Free the Land: An Interview with Chokwe Lumumba
Chokwe Lumumba discusses popular power and the past and future of revolutionary struggle in the American South.
- Interview by
- Bhaskar Sunkara
Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in a Mississippi the popular imagination would paint as anything but.
It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a State Capitol building that flies a defiant Confederate battle flag and a City Hall built by slave labor.
But when I went to Jackson to profile the newly elected Lumumba last year and in my conversations with Mississippians throughout this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Mainstream politicians like Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Jackson’s new administration. They talked about Lumumba’s honor and integrity, whatever their political differences. After the mayor’s death in February at the age of sixty-six, Cole called him “a man by the people, of the people, and for the people.”
Even city business leaders like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise during Lumumba’s administration about how clear, open, and efficient his first few months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue and hostility at the state level, Lumumba had just passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. The taps ran brown and many roads were in disrepair when I visited the city, and the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened action if waste systems weren’t upgraded. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, explaining the situation and winning consent for the measure in a referendum.
It gave a new resonance to the “sewer socialist” tradition that administered public office for generations in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the twentieth century. But there were signs that if the mayor and his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stayed in power, the deepening of their revolution would attract something of a counterrevolution in response.
Lumumba was born in Detroit as Edwin Finley Taliaferro. He saw racism growing up, from all-white restaurants in Dearborn that wouldn’t serve his family to housing and job discrimination in the inner city. It instilled a level of social consciousness in the young man, consciousness that would only grow as he absorbed the era’s images: Emmett Till’s battered teenaged corpse, street battles and sit-ins, and, most formatively, the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Like so many other black youth, he was radicalized. Adopting his new name from a Central African ethnic group and slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Chokwe put ambitions of becoming a lawyer on hold to join the fight. He was attracted to the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) movement, which had roots in Detroit but relocated to Jackson. They wanted a new nation in the African-American majority counties of the Southeast.
In 1971, Lumumba joined them in Jackson — where, as in other cities in Mississippi, blacks had little political representation and nostalgia for Jim Crow was still strong. In August of that same year, local police and FBI agents raided the RNA compound. In the ensuing gun battle, during which Lumumba was not present, a police officer was killed and another, along with a federal agent, was wounded. Eleven New Afrika members were arrested. In the aftermath, Lumumba moved back to Detroit, finishing law school at Wayne State University in 1975 before finding his way back to Jackson a decade later.
But Lumumba’s was not the tale of a radical coming to terms with society as it exists, like so many from the New Left. His legal career was radical and often controversial. He took on a host of high-profile cases, including those of Fulani Sunni Ali, rapper Tupac Shakur, and former Black Panther Party members Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.
He never renounced the goal of black self-determination or apologized for his activism during his Republic of New Afrika years. Lumumba told me in the interview below that only his tactics had changed in light of the new political avenues now open to black militants in the South.
“At that time, in the seventies, we were locked out of government completely,” he said. “We were actually victims of government violence, so we protected ourselves against that repression.”
Today, the situation is different. From Tunica, in northwest Mississippi, to Wilkerson County, in the southwest, there are eighteen predominantly black counties in the state that have in the last few decades finally been able break the domination of white officeholders. Lumumba saw this as only the start of the deep transformation that the region needed.
“One of the routes to that self-determination,” he told me, “is to use the governmental slots in order to accumulate the political power that we can, and then to demand more, and to build more.” But he was quick to portray his movement as an inclusive socialist one. “This is not a ‘hate whitey’ movement. This is not some kind of a reactionary nationalist movement.”
Lumumba and the activists who rallied around his campaigns hoped to establish two planks of political power: one based on people’s assemblies and another on a solidarity economy, built on a network of worker-owned cooperatives. The assemblies were, for the moment, purely advisory. They started in Ward 2, while he was a councilman, but spread after his election as mayor.
Mississippi has had truly universal suffrage for only a little more than a generation. Yet Lumumba wanted to foster a democratic culture that was not just representative, but participatory. Inviting people to voice their grievances in town halls and have a say in the distribution of public resources was part of that commitment. But he had loftier ambitions: over time, he wanted the new organs of people’s power, absolute and direct democracy, to replace existing structures.
He didn’t even think that his government could be equated with “people’s power.” “That’s still a struggle to be achieved; that’s a goal to be reached. That’s not where we are now,” Lumumba cautioned.
The solidarity economy schemes were just as ambitious. While keenly aware of and open about the limits of political and economic experimentation on the local level — and seeing his new administration’s efforts as transitional — Lumumba wanted to use city contracts and economic leverage to foster worker ownership. Invoking the Ujamaa concept of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, he hoped to transform a full 10 percent of Jackson’s economy into cooperatives by the end of his first term alone. The administration had been planning for months to debate and explore their options with activists and outside experts at a “Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference” in May.
It was less about spearheading a revolution from above than creating a climate of radical thought and experimentation that could take on dynamics of its own. In the meantime, even Jackson’s moderates were won over by clean and efficient government and Lumumba’s easy charm and humor.
That support would have been needed. Activists within the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement worried that if they went too far too fast, the state legislature could limit self-governance in Jackson, maybe even place the city under trusteeship. What’s more, both sides knew that the honeymoon period with downtown developers couldn’t last either. Real economic and political transformation requires taking power away from those not keen on relinquishing it.
This interview was conducted with Lumumba in February 2014, several days before he died from heart failure. For the Left, a few lessons in particular should be drawn from it. Lumumba governed to inspire movements from below, not to administer austerity. There need not be a contradiction between holding office, even executive office, and building a radical opposition.
Lumumba navigated these waters successfully despite the fact that he ran as a Democrat. Utilizing open primaries — a peculiarity of the American system — may not be the best route for socialists in northern cities where liberal machines still dominate and neutralize insurgencies from within, but it can make tactical sense elsewhere.
Nowhere is that truer than in states such as Mississippi. One of the most progressive voting blocs in the country is in the so-called Black Belt: the African-American majority counties that stretch across the Southeast. Without sufficient progressive numbers statewide to swing states in the electoral college or to elect anyone but local officials, these constituencies are ignored by presidential-cycle-minded national liberals. They shouldn’t be by socialists and all those committed to building militant currents among the most oppressed.
Success doesn’t come easy. But Lumumba and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement showed how years of disciplined work “serving the people,” including politicized relief work after Hurricane Katrina, could pay off in the electoral arena and how those victories could expand rather than restrict popular power.
We’ll need many more efforts like it in the years to come to end class and racial exploitation. And that’s the only way fit to commemorate a comrade as astounding as Chokwe Lumumba.
You came to Jackson in the early 1970s — what was the political climate in the city like at the time?
When I came to Jackson in March 1971, it was just about six to eight months after two Jackson State University students — James Earl Green and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs — had been killed on the campus.
The civil rights movement rocked the foundation of the white-supremacist government and culture in the South. And across Mississippi, a lot of good work was spearheaded by Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer, Medgar Evers and others. In 1964, they helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. That party, in the early ’70s, had a profound effect on the state Democratic Party. It was forced, for instance, to mandate that half of its delegates would have to be black and half be women.
So the civil rights movement had significant gains, but repression was still extreme. Discrimination on jobs was commonplace. Even though the civil rights movement had pretty much nationally won acceptance of the idea that Mississippi apartheid, or Jim Crow, as it was called, had to go, in the state there was still resistance to it. It was clear that even where access had come to universities and to restaurants, that was not associated with access to power — economic or political — for blacks.
There were very few blacks that were political officials — none in Mississippi’s major cities, and only some in small towns. Economically, it was still pretty much a white supremacist system. Rich whites owned production and blacks and others were relegated to the fringes.
At the same time, we still faced intimidation from right-wing forces. Klansmen populated police departments, and so on.
Around the country, a lot of black people’s movements had moved from the phase of just merely turning the other cheek in the face of attacks and egregious repression to actually declaring the right to self-defense, under the inspiration of Malcolm X. And that certainly was the position that we took, which inevitably led to clashes between those who were used to preying on blacks — and particularly movement blacks, like civil rights organizers — without any kind of response, and our determination to say that we weren’t going to be victimized.
We came in peace, but we came prepared.
Given this context, during the 1970s, you were a supporter of the Republic of New Afrika movement. How do you reflect on this period in your activism? Have your political views shifted at all in regards to black self-determination and the methods in which it can be achieved?
My view on self-determination is the same. First of all, it’s a fundamental right for all people — not just black people. I’d say that what has changed are the tactics, and somewhat the strategy, for reaching that goal.
In the ’70s, we were locked out of government completely. We were actually victims of government violence, so we protected ourselves against that repression. But since that time, particularly in Jackson, where I am now the mayor, the population changed. The city is now 85 percent black. Many of those people have worked together with us as we fought for rights for our youth, political prisoners, the victims of racism, the prosecution of the murder of Medgar Evers, and so on.
We’ve been able to politicize the growing black population in Jackson, and in the state. We now have not just an 85 percent black population, but a black population prepared to elect progressive leadership.
The tactical change here is that we now can elect black people into government, particularly into local governments and county-wide governments. And we have a whole region called the Kush region, as we’ve named it, on the western part of Mississippi — everywhere from Tunica, which is the northwest, all the way down to Wilkinson County, which is southwest, and everywhere in between those two points. A contiguous land mass of eighteen different counties; seventeen of them are predominantly black. Only one of them, Warren County, is about 47 percent black.
In those areas, the population has been now for some time electing black sheriffs, black mayors, black city council people, et cetera. So what we have determined is that one of the routes to that self-determination is to use the governmental slots in order to accumulate the political power that we can, and then to demand more, and to build more, and even to build more statewide as the leverage for our position so we can launch an effort for more statewide control and participation by the black population.
I think it is important to say here, because I know some people will mischaracterize this, that this is not a “hate whitey” movement; this is not some kind of a reactionary nationalist movement. This is a movement that is geared toward winning the right of self-determination. It is our view that where you have a majority-black population, they have the right to have the majority of political power, to exercise the majority of the economic power and social power, to build that kind of influence. And at the same time they have a responsibility to make sure that the resources of society are equally available to all residents, whether they be white, Hispanic, Indian, and so on and so forth — particularly Indian, I would say. But all folks.
Last year, in an interview with the Jackson Free Press, Jackson’s police chief, Lindsey Horton, inadvertently laid out a pretty vulgar Marxist view of policing. He said that policing goes back to the biblical days — you can’t have a civilized society with haves and have-nots without the have-nots trying to take from the haves. Policing defends property.
How does administering these repressive parts of the state in Jackson clash with the movement’s values? What, if anything, can be done to change the nature of policing in Jackson, considering we’ll probably be living in a class society for a little while longer?
There have been a lot of contradictions in our struggle, and this is just another one. There are many stages of struggle that have contradictions in them. As a lawyer, people used to call me the “revolutionary lawyer” because I served political prisoners, took on causes for resistance and helped the movement move forward in many different ways. But nothing could be more of an oxymoron than a “revolutionary lawyer,” because the law itself is a reactionary thing in the United States, which has been set up, in many instances, by the people who keep us oppressed. There’s no question about that.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a lawyer, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t serve the people as a lawyer, and that you can’t fight for people’s rights as a lawyer, and that you can’t do all you can in order to change the situation. It’s the same thing in this position as mayor. And in fact, we think I can do more in this position than I could as a lawyer.
We’ve made sure that Lindsey Horton is in line with our vision that we are working to change the situation between haves and have-nots in order to bring up people who are have-nots and put them in a position where they will be equally respected in this society, where the social forces in this society will respect their equality and that, therefore, would reduce crime. Jobs and other programs reduce the need for crime. I don’t think that Mr. Horton is where I am on the issue, and he doesn’t have the background that I have, but I do believe that’s one of the obligations I have, to try to teach those who are in my administration the points that are important to the transition of society.
So, yes, we still run into some behavior which is problematic in terms of our march forward to create a revolutionary culture down here, to create a culture that challenges all repression and all types of exploitation — and the struggle against that manifests itself in many different ways — but I think so far, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the response that we’ve gotten from people.
However, just because the people were ready to step forward and say, “Oh, I want to make that change,” does not mean that all the people who voted have a thorough understanding of what that change is, or how we’ve got to go about that change. And the same is true for all the people who work for the government.
You just alluded to your work as a cofounder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the movement’s role in your election. How do you see the relationship between the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and your position now as mayor of Jackson? Have there been measures to maintain the independence of the movement? Is it hard to govern without demobilizing the activists and the energy that actually got you in office? Or do you not see a contradiction between having a grassroots movement and also holding executive power?
Here again, you’re good at asking questions that present contradictions, but you certainly identified one there. It was a contradiction that was raised in Detroit when they elected their first black mayor, Coleman Young, who had some history of fighting for the labor movement and for the rights of our people. It raised itself in Chicago when Harold Washington was elected, and it’s true for some cities. And it may be nowhere more manifested than right here in the city of Jackson. There is a tendency — this is what creates the contradiction — for movement groups and protest groups and other activists who are trying to get revolutionary change to put their movement on hold and to rely exclusively on the mayor and the mayor’s staff to get things done for the people.
That’s a mistake. Our administration has very little more control over the economic realities of our society than we did before we got in these positions. We have some technical control over those things — or technical influence, let’s put it that way. But not real control — and especially in a city setting, as opposed to being in charge of the whole state. The contradictions exist. So what you have to do is, you have to tell the folks they have to be steadfast. You have to teach them that it’s important to have someone in office who’s trying to fight for the right things.
That’s necessary, but not sufficient. It’s not sufficient to win our struggle. We need to encourage the whole population to become involved in the movement for change.
To foster that kind of involvement, you’ve encouraged the creation of people’s assemblies. Do you envision direct democracy of this type just augmenting traditional representative offices, or one day replacing them?
The people’s assembly is a body where the people challenge government, ask government questions, get informed by government, and protest government when necessary. And that’s a movement that we support, and we to continue to support, to tell people that government is totally in their hands — and that’s on all levels: federal, state, and local.
The assembly should represent all things that don’t currently represent the people’s authority. And in many instances, that will be some of the elected government. And some of the bureaucratic structures. So I think the people should become more and more involved in reforming and changing the structures that surround them and the people that surround them — determining who handles structures, and how they should be elected, and who should be elected — until the people’s power becomes the same as, becomes simultaneous with, the development of government.
Now what does that mean? Does that mean that you have to have something different in terms of the name of the government, something different in structures? It’s probably going to mean that. That’s going to be for the people to decide. But right now, I don’t think it would be truthful to say, even though we are building a people’s government, that our government at this time is simultaneous with, and the exact same as, people’s power.
That’s still a struggle to be achieved; that’s a goal to be reached. That’s not where we are now.
You described the type of economy you’d like to build in Jackson as a “solidarity economy.” You’ve mentioned worker-owned co-ops and banks, community land trusts, and participatory budgeting. How is this progressing considering the fact that you are, as you mentioned, running a city where you can’t deficit-finance like we could at the national level?
Yes, there are limitations to what we can accomplish. We know that the problem is that too few people control too many of the resources that people live on, and that’s why you have your big gap between haves and have-nots.
What can we do in order to change that situation? Well, from the mayor’s position, a number of these companies want to get local contracts from us. We can create rules, and that’s what we’ve done. Jackson’s open for business, but if you’re going to do business in Jackson, then we say, “Look, you’re going to have to employ the people of Jackson.” And we say that over 50 percent of your subcontracting has to go out to what they call minorities — I don’t really agree with that term, but we’ll use it for the time being. It could mean Native American contractors; it could mean various other people like that. So that’s something to help begin some change.
However, that’s not comprehensive enough, because it leaves out a lot of the private sector who do not come through government in order to get their contracts, and the people employed by these businesses. We are a city, and I don’t want you to mistake us, yet, for a revolutionary state or some other place. We can’t seize corporations and turn them over to the people. We can’t do that. So that’s one of the limitations.
And secondly, we can have influence on trying to stop these corporations from discriminating on various different levels, because we can make it uncomfortable for them. But we don’t have the ability to police that completely, because we’re just a city.
What did the movement look like before you were elected, either during the campaign or before it, in terms of community work building some sort of presence in the city?
That’s a good question. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was created here in Jackson in 1990, and it was predated by some other work you have already referred to — the Republic of New Afrika — that started here back in 1971. So over the years, a lot of work has been done. But more importantly, since 1990, we have been engaged in a lot of youth programs. We have literally been involved in helping hundreds of youths go to college who would not have gone to college, and probably would not have finished high school, had it not been for us. We have run programs where they’ve learned about their cultural heritage, where they’ve gotten aid and assistance in the academic world, where they’ve had a chance to learn drama, and so many other things — and where they really became stand-up figures in their community.
We’ve also defended a lot of people who were the victims of racial abuse. We’ve done that all over the state. And that helped our situation. We helped thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors. We literally sent tons of material aid to Gulf Coast survivors of Katrina, and we created political programs, political projects, and political organizations in order to fight the abuses that the Katrina residents were suffering.
As you know, Katrina happened in 2005. My first election to anything was in 2009, when we ran for City Council. We were also engaged in a lot of work to straighten out specific communities — building a garden, for instance, to help food flow for some people, and really for the idea of bringing people in the community together.
And we aligned ourselves with a lot of the civil rights organizations here who are working on many projects. A lot of them had to do with the so-called criminal justice system. So many people going to prison — not only those who are being wrongly convicted, but those who became sensitive to the problem that America wasn’t really providing, and that Mississippi’s system wasn’t providing, the opportunity for a number of young people to grow up in a healthy social environment.
We united with a very progressive ACLU movement in Mississippi at the time, with the NAACP, who worked on many of these projects, and with a number of other people and organizations that were dealing with the prison situation. Fifty prisoners had been killed in jail over a five-year period in the state. So we got involved in that project and exposed that in several instances they were not all victims of suicide as had been claimed. There was some skullduggery going on.
Those are some of the things, off the top of my head, that I can tell you about that we were working on at the time of our election. And of course we were building the people’s assembly before I got elected mayor.
Do you see your success in Jackson as being indicative of a model that could work nationally? I know the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizes across the state, and elsewhere in the South, but have you sought national alliances with other left groups?
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement definitely seeks alliances with other groups, and the idea of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is to build a movement of what we call a new Afrikan people. And a new Afrikan people is the same thing as black people, or so-called African-American people. But it’s also to build a movement of people, period. In other words, to create a positive, progressive movement across the borders of the United States and internationally.
We fully understand that there’s no freedom for us unless there’s freedom for everybody. Martin Luther King said that at one point, and I think it’s very true. So we seek different kinds of relationships, and we want to spread the things that we are doing, which we think are useful and can help people in other places. Of course, people are going to have to organize and plan based on the conditions in their own areas.
But the people’s assembly is something we recommend, and actually, the people’s assembly is something we borrowed from elsewhere. Our use of the assembly really comes from Katrina, with the destruction of New Orleans. There was a survivors’ assembly created in order to try to help folks in the New Orleans area and in the Gulf Coast area to reclaim their land and their jobs and their educational status. We facilitated that from Jackson, which is about two and a half hours away from the Gulf Coast. But we later decided that we would create an assembly for ourselves in order to advance our political objectives, so we wouldn’t wind up in a situation like the folks did down in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.
But yes, we certainly think that’s a model that can be exported and work for others across the country.
What has the response been from the Right in Jackson and Mississippi as a whole? Obviously, you’re contending with a hostile and very conservative state legislature.
The New Afrikan Independence Movement — which the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is a part of, and is preceded by the Republic of Afrika and others — has been hated by the Right. We may be the most hated group by the Right, historically. And that was reflected in the way we got elected. During the election process, those communities that are more identified with the right wing voted almost unanimously for the other candidate.
I didn’t get many of those votes at all. In fact, there was one precinct where I got three votes. But fortunately, we got overwhelming support from the majority of the city, from people who benefited from our long struggle against repression, as opposed to people who felt threatened by that long struggle. However, I would like to suggest something: since I’ve been elected, even though those forces still exist which would oppose us, we have been getting overwhelming support, initially, from all sectors of the community.
I’m sure we’re not getting it from the Tea Party, or the extreme right — don’t get me wrong. But I’m saying that clearly there are white people in the city who were persuaded by Tea Party right-wingers and others that we were the devil, who are now realizing that is not true. And they see the logic in what we’re talking about, and we seem to be getting their support.
Now, there’s a lot to that, and some other time we can both talk about it and dissect it, and I’m sure there are going to be some strains in that relationship from time to time as people have difficulty understanding the sacrifices that they have to make in order to get a really revolutionary, changed society, and the other things that are involved in our transition. But as of right now, we’re actually in a period where we’re getting overwhelming support from across the city.
As an example, we just put a referendum on the ballot and got 91 percent support. That means that we got support from every segment of the community, and the referendum had to do with work that we need to do to repair the infrastructure of our city. That’s good for us, because we’re going to march on ideas which ultimately do help everybody, not just the black population. So I think we’re on a little bit of a honeymoon still, and I’m sure there will be a lot of political struggle in the future.
But as long as we can stay on the right side of it, keep the good ideas, and not get politically reactionary, then I think that ultimately — I’m sure that ultimately — we will win.